Colette Peters was sworn in as the director of the prisons bureau in early August.

Colette Peters was sworn in as the director of the prisons bureau in early August. Bureau of Prisons

We’re Not ‘Shawshank Redemption’: New Federal Prisons Director Tackles the Bureau’s Reputation

Staffing and employee accountability are also priorities for Colette Peters.

The new federal prisons leader is seeking to tackle the years-long staffing crisis at the bureau and improve its public image, among other priorities. “The world believes [we’re like] ‘Orange is the New Black’ and ‘Shawshank Redemption.’ And that's not what we have here” at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Director Colette Peters said. 

“The super majority of our people are coming to work every day, dedicated to our mission, with strong ethics, wanting to do the right thing,” Peters, formerly head of the Oregon Department of Corrections, told Government Executive during an interview on October 27 at the bureau’s headquarters. Peters was sworn-in as the director in early August, and many have been hopeful about her arrival following the departure of the much-criticized previous leader of the sprawling agency that is responsible for the care and custody of thousands of inmates and employs thousands of staff nationwide. 

The Justice Department inspector general said last year that “maintaining a safe, secure and humane prison system” was a top management and performance challenge for the department as a result of the Bureau of Of Prisons’ issues with staffing, security, infrastructure, contraband and more. Peters, a former watchdog herself, looks forward to being a partner with the IG as well as the Government Accountability Office to implement recommendations for improvement and ensure there is accountability in how federal prisons are run from the local levels to headquarters. 

Highlights from the interview are below. The full version is available on an upcoming episode of Government Executive’s podcast

On Peters’ initial thoughts about the agency during her first few months.

It's been an incredible welcome. The team was really thoughtful in how they onboarded me and the information they got before me and all the briefings that I've had. The first few weeks it was just back-to-back briefings, learning this agency. While I've been in public safety for 30 years, and I’m not new to corrections, [I’m] new to the bureau…One of my biggest takeaways in that learning is just the great people that are here at headquarters who were part of the onboarding and then the same takeaway in the institutions…[They are] hard working corrections professionals who are just really proud that I was there, so that they could show off the pride in their work.

On the staffing shortage and any authorities needed from Congress or the Office of Personnel Management.

This is top of mind, of course. If you look at my background and experience, one of the things that's at the top of my priority list is employee wellness, which is something I hope at some point we’re able to assess here and address in a really meaningful way. But I can't even have that conversation right now until we address staffing because [the shortages have] a negative impact on wellness. And so, we called it a crisis before the pandemic and then the pandemic happened and it impacted our folks even more. So, they're exhausted, they're overworked. You've written about overtime, augmentation, all of those issues. And so, it really is one of the top priorities for the executive team in the bureau. 

We've worked with OPM and the Department of Justice to get recruitment and retention bonuses, where it is most difficult to hire generally, or where it's most difficult to hire specific types of employees. And we've contracted with a couple of organizations. One came in and did a thorough analysis of our organization. What does the communication flow look like? What would an automated staffing analysis look like? Where are the breakdowns in recruitment and retention? And so, they're just now completing that analysis. So, we're looking forward to looking at what they found and what their recommendations are. And then we contracted with another organization that really focused on how do we recruit? How do we talk about ourselves? You know there's so many misnomers about corrections, right? The world believes [we’re like] ‘Orange is the New Black’ and ‘Shawshank Redemption.’ And that's not what we have here at the bureau. Our mission is great. It's two-fold. It's about public safety, but it's also about creating humane environments so that we produce better public safety outcomes. 

On handling employee misconduct.

I'll start with a reminder that 99.9% of our employees come to work every day doing the right thing and when we have individuals who make poor choices or make egregious choices that are criminal, we are all as embarrassed and outraged as the general public…As the director of the bureau, as the former inspector general of Oregon, I take these allegations very seriously. People who are in our care should be free from assault and should be free from sexual abuse period. And so, we are partnering with the inspector general. I've met with him multiple times now to ensure that we're holding individuals accountable. I've met with the U.S. attorneys and asked the same thing: that they take these employee cases very seriously, both because those individuals need to be held accountable, but the person working next to that individual needs to know that their work is valued and that when people are making bad choices, that they'll be held accountable, so that the employee remaining is safe and secure. We've also done, and the Department of Justice has approved, a reorganization to create another associate deputy position right now, every executive team member reports directly to the deputy so breaking that up a little bit, so we can have a better pulse and headquarters accountability on what's happening in our institutions and in our other divisions. 

Plus, I've heard a lot of feedback around investigations taking too long, [the] backlog of investigations and when there's a backlog and it takes too long, it's really hard to hold somebody accountable a year later, right? Memories are gone, employees have moved on. Really ensuring they're swift and sure actions when employees make egregious behavior is really important. So, we've just approved an additional 40 positions in our Office of Internal Affairs and we're hoping that those 40 positions will not only help us dig out from the backlog, but prevent a backlog from going forward.

On how the agency handled the pandemic and any long-term public health investments the agency needs to make. 

I'm really focusing on the current state, what's the current state of affairs as it relates to COVID? How prepared are we for monkeypox? As of [October 26], we only had three institutions that were “COVID red,” if you will. And so, we're hoping that we're kind of pivoting out of the pandemic, but we're still in the pandemic…We have so much to learn from the pandemic. You know, us corrections professionals have said for decades that we are a public health organization. We are the largest alcohol and drug treatment provider. We're the largest provider of psychology and psychiatric services. We have 150,000 patients, but the world didn't see us as a healthcare organization until the pandemic came. And so, we've had some preliminary conversations around this table around how do we pivot out of the pandemic, and forever see us as a public health organization? Because if we can get these individuals, physically and mentally well, they will be such better neighbors when they are released. 

On Peters’ relationship with the union that represents BOP employees. 

It's been great. So [Union President] Shane [Fausey] agreed to meet with me, I think on Day 2 after being sworn in…I talked about my history with the union. It's been very collaborative. I'm just, I know that we have different roles, but at the end of the day, we want the same thing. He wants what's best for his members, I want what's best for our employees. And he and I really made a commitment to have open communication, open dialogue. We also agreed to solve problems at the lowest level possible before it rises to the director’s office and Mr. Fausey. He's been incredibly welcoming.

On any concerns about facilities’ needs for infrastructure or technology upgrades.

Absolutely, positively. In classic corrections, the same issue was in Oregon, we haven't stayed up on infrastructure. So yesterday, I was at a facility that was constructed 120 years ago and they've done incredible work. They talked to me about what it looked like a year ago, and the changes that they've made, but we have hundreds of thousands of dollars that we need in order to restore the pipes at [U.S. Penitentiary] Atlanta. I'm told that the list of roofs that don't need to be replaced is a much shorter list of roofs that need to be replaced at the bureau. And so, we receive about $75 million every year to address infrastructure issues and we have a $2 billion problem. And that $2 billion problem is only category one and two life and safety issues…These are the things where we're literally concerned about roofs or wiring or plumbing.

On employees’ reactions to the changes she wants to make and any needed cultural changes at institutions? 

People have been so welcoming. It's been really great to hear the hope and optimism from boots on the ground frontline officers in our institutions who have been excited to meet me and excited to tell me their story… I think cultural change is hard anywhere. And so of course, as we engage in changes, or around any topic area, it's important to go slow. It's important to communicate those changes and to create buy-in, but I haven't picked up on any resistance. In fact, instead, what I've heard from folks with boots on the ground is that they want to be the gold standard in corrections.

On how she foresees her relationship with the Justice Department inspector general and Government Accountability Office.

I met with Inspector General [Michael] Horowitz multiple times…He used the word “partner” and I really appreciate it that he wants to be a partner in this; he wants to make the bureau successful…I've also met with GAO [officials]. It was the same sort of message that they really want to be good partners and help hold us accountable to best practices, but really keep the lines of communication open and transparent. What we're working on here at the bureau is ensuring that when those recommendations come forward, when those deficits are highlighted, that we're doing the best that we can to ensure that those deficit deficits get back filled. And one of the things that the deputy director and I have talked about a lot and the executive team is we need more accountability at headquarters. Yes, the local institutions are responsible for those deficits. Yes, those regional directors are responsible for monitoring those outcomes. But we have to have some accountability in helping ensure that we're solving these problems as an agency.

On misconceptions or myths about BOP? 

I would say the first one is [that] the negative headlines are what people walk away with. And that's the sense of the bureau. Mr. Fausey had a great statistic. Around [0.28%] of our employees are the ones who have engaged in negative behavior. I think that [there’s] some really good work that we can do to turn that perception around [to] that the super majority of our people are coming to work every day, dedicated to our mission, with strong ethics, wanting to do the right thing…[Also], there's a huge perception out there that [First Step Act] implementation didn't happen or didn't happen when it was supposed to. But as I review the outcomes and the deliverables we've delivered, the programming is happening…While there might have been bumps along the way, the agency has been working really hard to ensure that [First Step Act] implementation happens both at headquarters and in the institutions.